There’s a problem with America’s favorite type of whiskey. Bourbon — and we all know that real bourbon originated in 18th-Century Kentucky and must still be made in America and be at least 51 percent corn mash to be considered genuine — is in short supply. The problem, according to a statement by 228-year-old Buffalo Trace (which makes Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blanton’s and Pappy Van Winkle bourbons) is a shortage of lumber suitable for aging barrels combined with a huge upsurge in bourbon’s popularity worldwide. The upsurge is no surprise. All types of whiskey are getting more popular, and bourbon — with its sweeter, often more complex and usually less burning flavors than Scotch or Irish whiskies — have been a revelation to those who’ve never tried it before. So you might have to pay more for a great bottle of bourbon than you did a few years ago, but they are still out there.
Selecting the best bourbons was a really difficult job. We didn’t say it wasn’t a fun job, just that it was difficult. There are so many great bourbons out there — even some bargain brands will surprise — that narrowing it down to just 12 was a rigorous exercise that required a lot of water, aspirin and greasy food the following day. In fact, we were so impressed by so many of them, we couldn’t make a definitive ranking from 1 to 12. Instead, here are the top 12 best bourbons in alphabetical order, each one guaranteed to be a most pleasant sipping experience.
It’s an old whiskey legend that angels steal whiskey during the evaporation process. And this bourbon, developed by the late Lincoln Henderson, is called Angel’s envy because he believed that it was so good, the angels would be disappointed they didn’t take it all. He had a point; Angel’s Envy is a smooth and light, but flavorful, bourbon with hints of orange zest over port wine. That’s not too surprising, because — and this is a move that sounds more like scotch than bourbon — it’s aged in port wine barrels. Best to avoid if you don’t have a taste for wine-finished bourbons, but definitely worth a try if you have one or might like to develop one.
Black Maple Hill 16-year-old Small Batch
Although there’s a lot of hype surrounding Black Maple Hill’s 20-year-old, we prefer the 16-year-old. It comes on delicately, but not weakly, with a cognac-like nose and taste. Its taste is sophisticated and mature with overtones of citrus, cherries and honey. While there is a faint hint of char it is, thankfully, much less smoky than many older bourbons. But what’s most remarkable is that — although it’s 95 proof — there’s no hint of burn, and it can be enjoyed neat by anyone at any time.
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel
With its unique I Dream of Jeannie-style bottle with a little racehorse and jockey on top, Blanton’s looks like something out of the ordinary, and it is. It begins with a powerful toffee nose, and follows up with a taste reminiscent of orange zest and brown sugar. There are powerful rye overtones in all of Blanton’s products and it’s a great bourbon to try if you’re a rye whiskey fan (it can serve as a gateway whiskey). But all the delight of Blanton’s is short-lived and its finish is comparatively weak and short.
Eagle Rare Single Barrel Bourbon 17-year-old Whiskey
Just from its color you can tell this is one powerful whiskey, and it is. But more than that, it’s also complex. It comes on with a sweet, nutty nose and replaces that with a smooth, almost silky, wine-like taste. It then morphs into spice and floral flavors before a big, long leathery finish. Normally, we’d recommend a younger bourbon for the non-enthusiast (and Eagle Rare has some good ones), but this 17-year-old version is definitely worth the extra cost for its unforgettable qualities.
Four Roses Small Batch
We love Four Roses, but would not recommend it to non-bourbon drinkers as a first or an early foray into the type. All of their products, especially the Small Batch, have strong and elaborate tastes, and can turn off some beginners. From open, the Small Batch has enormous notes of citrus, vanilla, cherry and even candy. Sweet and oaky, maple and vanilla flavors then take over, and that is followed by a long, dry finish that put us in mind of tobacco. Four Roses isn’t for everybody, and we even know several bourbon fans who didn’t appreciate the Small batch until their second or even third taste. Keep in mind that this is not the Seagram-owned Four Roses from your daddy’s day, but a completely reborn entity with its own interests at heart.
Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon Whiskey
Every distiller has their own method (usually a old family recipe) for making their product unique. Hillrock’s is to never quite empty a barrel. When new whiskey is set aside to age, there’s always some of the last batch mixed in. It works. Woody and complex — but sometimes a touch too rye for our taste — Hillrock whiskies are always mature and smooth. The Solara-Aged batches, which come of age in Spanish sherry casks, never disappoint with clove and cinnamon flavors — rare in other bourbons.
While most of the other bourbons on this list are from Kentucky, this offering comes straight outta New York’s Hudson Valley. It gets the name Baby from its youth, since its maker — Tuthiltown Spirits — has only started making it in the last decade. And it lives up to the name with its youthful exuberance. With a robust bouquet featuring vanilla, leather and more than a little rye, it hints at a bite yet to come. The first tones of taste are strongly spicy with some fruit and just a whisper of caramel. The finish is long and strong without being harsh. Made from local ingredients and aged in oak barrels, Hudson Baby is, to us, a very traditional whiskey that’s young, but mature enough to compete with the big boys. We can’t wait to see what they can offer in a few years.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
We’re suckers for Knob Creek products, and are frankly smitten with the Single Barrel Reserve. Whether you’re a seasoned bourbon drinker or new to the experience, this example is well worth a try. The nose is a subtle and earthy, but features an intricate mixture of some of the most varied and surprising flavors bourbons can have. That’s backed up by a deep, rich taste that should put a little hair on your chest. Smooth to the point of being creamy, the Single Barrel Reserve moves from oak to caramel to cinnamon to maple and all over the map. The finish has a bit of alcohol burn at first, but mellows into something really special with vanilla and toffee fighting for top spot. This is what American whiskeys are meant to be.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15-year-old
We’re reluctant to taste any hooch made by a guy who goes by the name “Pappy” since a nasty experience in college, but we’re glad we made this exception. Hailed as the best of its kind, the Family Reserve is not always easy to get at an affordable price, but is worth the effort. Unlike most bourbons, which use rye to temper the corn, Pappy uses wheat; and that gives the Family Reserve a unique complexity. The opening and taste are almost ridiculous in their intricacy, with tones and notes of just about everything, but they’re well behaved, not fighting for attention. The taste is superb and the finish just as good. But be careful, the tannins reduce the alcohol burn and can easily fool you into drinking a lot of this 107-proof in one sitting.
Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
An excellent value, this lower-price bourbon is surprisingly refined. It’s complex and subtle flavors have divided the bourbon community, but those who like it tend to love it. Leaning more towards spicy than sweet, it still has a strong caramel nose, which comes on at the end. Because it lacks any dominant flavor, many think of 1792 as weaker bourbon; but others appreciate its complex mosaic, which needs to be savored to be properly enjoyed. And, of course, it’s never overpowering, so it’s a great starter bourbon for those who might be intimidated by the type.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
There are lots of premium Wild Turkey offerings, but our favorite is the Kentucky Spirit. While Wild Turkey products have a reputation for full flavor, they can sometimes be a bit harsh, and Kentucky Spirit manages to maintain the robust taste while reining it in with a mature smoothness. While the chocolate, vanilla and cherry flavors might sound like they belong in ice cream, they well suit this young but refined bourbon. But the best part is the finish, which is long and creamy. The problem with this whiskey is that each sip tastes like you really should have another right away.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Woodford is well known for its handcrafted whiskies that are limestone filtered and fermented in cypress tanks, rather than the more common stainless steel. We’re not sure if that’s why we like them so much, but we sure do. The official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve makes plenty of fine products, but we tend to reach for the Double Oaked. Its lower alcohol content — 90.4-proof as opposed to the 100.4 of some Woodford Reserve offerings — helps give it a rounder, more complex taste, and doesn’t create a burn or any form of harshness. While some whiskeys are toasted (heated in the barrel slowly by hand) and others are charred (seared in a vat a high temperature) to intensify flavor, this is the only one we know of that’s both.
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